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Why we need more than one Twitter

While on vacation, I considered my response to Elon Musk buying Twitter and whether it would differ from the kneejerk analysis we already have. As a general rule, when I write about subjects related to technology, I try to take a different angle than what is already covered. 

So I’m not going to take the “Let’s all quit Twitter” viewpoint, or “Elon Musk should be prohibited from buying Twitter” standpoint, or even the “Twitter is going to hell in a neoconservative handbasket” perspective.

But we should examine why we care about Twitter at all. It serves an important function, as an instantaneous publicly viewable broadcast message bus, for individuals, brands, governments, and everything in-between. But it also has many weaknesses, including that it is not a public good — it is a corporation, and if Elon Musk gets his way, it will be again a privately owned one.

Therefore, short of government policies limiting its powers, how Twitter is run, its overall technology vision and its enforced policies will always reflect its ownership and designated management. This is also true of Facebook and its various internet properties, although their basic functionality is different and much broader in scope than Twitter.

If Twitter is to be owned by Elon Musk, there will be a change of leadership and potentially ethical direction in terms of what content and what influencing entities will be permitted on the platform. We can debate endlessly about what systemic changes will occur under Musk and whether they will be good or bad. But the world outside Twitter will always be in a state of flux, as governments and leaders come and go, as does what the public feels is ethically permissible to be broadcasted versus what is unethical or repugnant.

This is why I believe that microblogging – the generic term for the type of service that Twitter is — needs to be a fundamental part of the Internet’s infrastructure, much in the same way that SMTP email, DNS, and the Web are. And in the same way that those services are standardized, from a protocol standpoint, via organizations such as the ISO, ANSI, Ecma, and IEC.

I don’t know how many Twitter-like services we need, whether it is a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand. Or tens of thousands. But is clear that there are many types of voices on Twitter, all of which are competing to be heard and are subject to unknown algorithms that determine whose voices are surfaced and when. But suppose a community of voices is vocal enough or wants to amplify itself. In that case, it should be able to host its own microblogging platform if it is permitted in the country where it chooses to home itself and has the resources to do so. 

Also: Forget the algorithm: Here’s what really makes Twitter unique

It doesn’t matter whether it is a government entity, the academic and scientific community, a vertical industry, or any group of people that decides it wants its own platform — a reason to form a microblogging community requires a viewpoint, a common objective, what have you.

Assume that we can create an international standard for a microblogging protocol and API, which determines client/server connectivity. Assume the open source community can create microblogging server infrastructure, clients, and APIs. How do we get them the needed visibility?

I believe it is possible to have directory and federation services that would allow all of these to be registered, much like we have registrars for domains. This would allow microblogging clients or systems that can connect to the API to have unified “feeds” of these platforms, including exchanging posts and conversations, much like discussion threads that cross-post within USENET.

This is not to say that all microblogging platforms will have an intelligent or thoughtful conversation — but rather, it would be easier to find the ones that do if they are federated under a common set of protocols. This would have the effect of, over time, evening out the “signal to noise ratio” as more and more microblogging platforms emerge and become discoverable. The quality of conversation would increase, while the insanity that often takes over Twitter would be reduced.

This is a vision for how we can create a more decentralized (and therefore less susceptible to capture by any one entity, government, or otherwise) social media platform. A platform where people can voluntarily associate themselves with like-minded individuals.

Blockchain technologies and other content provenance and authentication technologies, such as C2PA, could ensure transactional and referential integrity between systems and prove ownership of posted content. Various open authentication mechanisms, which have already been standardized on other platforms, such as Google ID, Microsoft ID, Facebook, and yes, Apple, Amazon, and Twitter, could be used for single sign-on. Accounts could be created and consolidated on these platforms, including allowing accounts from one system to participate in another via trust relationships. 

This is possible, but it requires a community of people who see value in decentralization. Who will build this? I don’t know. But if we don’t, somebody else will, and they may not have our best interests in mind.

Also: No, Elon, Twitter will never be a platform for ‘Free Speech’

Having a distributed network of dozens, thousands, and tens of thousands of microblogging platforms raises its own issues. How a platform or an individual gets “canceled” from another and which platforms continue to allow such objectionable content will be endlessly debated. A new form of politics will be involved when a specific group or account engages in behavior another community finds objectionable.

Will offending accounts and platforms be suspended, with trust relationships severed? Will the platforms change their terms of service to disallow certain speech or behavior not in line with their values? If we don’t start down this path towards decentralization and alternative networks for communication, we will never find out.

The benefits here outweigh the negatives, as again, we would not depend on the whims of a single entity as to how it adjudicates conflict. Nor are we limiting ourselves to a single nation, company, or even a single management philosophy. We take back control of the internet from those few who wish to manipulate us and hold the keys to our platforms. 

We would get to run our communities the way we want — and we will fail quickly when we create environments that do not provide the functionality, atmosphere, and value sets that its users want and succeed when we do.

I believe that this is the next step in the evolution of the internet, and it starts with you. You can be part of the solution by helping to create these communities or platform providers. You can use your skills in software development, system administration, design, user experience, or business to make this happen.

The time is now. Let’s build a better internet together.


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